By Frances Harrison | International News Safety Institute
I first met him - this tall, earnest, Tamil man - in rebel territory in northern Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami. He’d grown up surrounded by war, studying by lantern for his A Levels without enough text books, before becoming a newspaper reporter and then graduating to a high profile job working for the pro-rebel news website, Tamilnet, based in Norway.
It was always going to be a risky assignment - Lokeesan’s predecessor was found dead in a ditch after being abducted. But as the Tamil Tiger rebels started to lose territory rapidly in 2009, Lokeesan found himself running for his life with his parents and precious satellite equipment. Hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians were hemmed into a tiny patch of territory in northern Sri Lanka, being shelled and bombed on a daily basis.
At first Lokeesan shot graphic images and sent them abroad. Then he began to realise they were too shocking to be used. He switched to black and white, hoping that would be more palatable but he had to live with the reality in colour.
“If Reuters or BBC had been there it would have stopped, but not my organisation,” he says, aware that whatever he wrote was discredited by the Sri Lankan government which automatically dismissed him as a terrorist.
In those months of war Lokeesan would flee from village to village with his parents, dig a bunker, set up a tent and then leave them, retracing his steps to witness and document the aftermath of the latest attack. His mother and father were on tenterhooks the whole time, unable to eat until he returned. He would just recharge his camera equipment with the solar power pack - and his parents would understand he meant to go out again the next day to report. They never ever discussed the risks.
Was there ever a conflict between being a bystander filming and getting involved to pick up the injured, I asked. Lokeesan patiently explained there was no need to worry about missing that poignant scene of a mourning mother or crying injured child. There were so many he could always find another. He didn’t hesitate to stop and help. Sometimes he’d collect material and then when he’d left the scene of carnage, stop and sob.
When we first met, Lokeesan showed me his certificate from a BBC World Service Trust training course he’d attended. I asked if it had been any use for what he had to undergo later. He smiled sweetly and shook his head. The instructors had told him always to check casualty data with official sources like the police and army. In 2009 the Sri Lankan military claimed it was operating a “zero civilian casualty policy”, but Lokeesan was documenting body after body.
Today it’s the children’s corpses he can’t forget. When he reached safety abroad his European colleagues generously chipped in to buy him a new camera. He looked through the lens, thinking to take photos of his own baby son but all he could see was the images of the dead.
Lokeesan needed a new camera because on the day he surrendered to the Sri Lankan army he had to destroy all his equipment to save his life. He was a wanted man. He smashed his camera, his laptop, his Thuraya satellite phone and his Bgan portable Internet dish, burying them under the wet sand. The Bgan he said was particularly indestructible - a credit to its manufacturers who probably never dreamed a customer would want purposefully to destroy their expensive dishes. It was counter intuitive to smash all that gear he’d guarded so carefully. “It felt as if I was killing a part of myself,” he says.
There was one last phone call to his boss in Oslo, who told him to escape with his life.
Lokeesan’s story of escape is hair-raising. He managed to avoid being spotted, partly because of his beard and dishevelled state. Detained in a giant refugee camp, he swapped the order of his names around, hoping to avoid the security forces who were looking for him. It worked for a few days. Then there was an announcement on the camp loudspeaker system. “Lokeesan the reporter, we know you are here,” it said.
It took more than a year and a half to reach safety and there were many more near escapes. In the end, it was another journalist who saved him, a Sinhalese exiled reporter. For Lokeesan as a minority Tamil to trust a member of the major community was something new but he was desperate, having run out of options. Growing up in rebel territory he had never met or talked to a Sinhalese civilian.
Lokeesan’s story is one of those told in a new Norwegian film, “Silenced Voices”, by film maker Beate Arnestad. The first screening in Oslo sold out and had to be moved to a bigger venue. Lokeesan sat in the cinema with hundreds of spectators watching the footage he’d shot in the war, projected onto the large screen. This quiet restrained man broke down, crying, coughing and snuffling into his handkerchief, unable to cope with reliving those scenes. It was extremely distressing to see him collapse. He puts himself through this because he feels it’s his mission now to tell people what happened in Sri Lanka. He struggles to understand why he survived when so many other didn’t but assumes it was so he could tell the world what happened.
Frances Harrison is a former BBC Correspondent in Sri Lanka, among other countries, and her book on the end of the civil war there, "Still Counting the Dead" will be published this summer by Portobello Books in London.
Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Tuesday, February 14, 2012
The LLRC cleared the Sri Lankan military of allegations that it deliberately attacked civilians and deprived them of food and medicine as a tactic of war.
US Under Secretary General of State Maria Otero, the most senior US official to visit Sri Lanka since 2005, told journalists in Colombo on the 13th of February that the United States will support a resolution in the UN Human Rights Council in March that provides an opportunity for the Government of Sri Lanka to describe what it intends to do to implement the LLRC's recommendations.
While human rights activists were calling for global powers to support a resolution at the 19th session of the UNHRC that convenes on the 27th of February in Geneva for an international investigation against Sri Lanka on war crimes allegations in the war against Tamil Tigers, comments by US Under Secretary General and Assistant Secretary Robert O Blake indicated that US was content with the implementation of the LLRC recommendations.
The full statement follows:
"I am pleased to be here in Colombo for the first time. I've had a series of productive meetings with the government of Sri Lanka, as well as civil society, political leaders, and journalists. President Rajapaksa was kind enough to meet with me and explain his government's vision to advance reconciliation among Sri Lanka's ethnic communities since the end of the conflict. I also had fruitful meetings with the Minister of External Affairs and the Secretary of Defense, among others.
"The United States has long been a friend of Sri Lanka; we were one of the first countries to recognize the LTTE as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 1997. Since 1956, USAID has provided over $2 billion in assistance in Sri Lanka. This work benefits all Sri Lankans with initiatives on economic growth, agricultural development, environment and natural resources, health, education and training, democracy and governance, community reconciliation and humanitarian assistance. Current assistance is shifting from relief to sustainable development and is focused on two key areas: economic growth for conflict affected regions and strengthened cooperation between the state and an engaged, active civil society.
"Our bilateral relationship with Sri Lanka is multifaceted. While I am the most senior U.S. government official to visit Sri Lanka since Secretary of State Colin Powell in 2005, I know that you have hosted visitors from several U.S. government agencies in recent months. This shows our robust and diverse relationship and strong people-to-people and growing commercial ties.
"During my trip, I had the chance to meet with officials and groups who focus on trafficking in persons, child labor, and human rights. The Government of Sri Lanka has demonstrated improved performance, most notably in the successful prosecution and conviction of traffickers under anti-trafficking legislation, and rejuvenated its interagency task force on this issue. We welcome the opportunity to continue to work with the government to strengthen investigation and prosecution efforts and eradicate the scourge of trafficking in persons.
"Child labor is another area where the Sri Lankan government and NGOs are making a great deal of progress. Today less than two percent of children are engaged in the worst forms of child labor in Sri Lanka. This is a significant achievement, particularly in this region, and we are even more encouraged by the government's plan to entirely eliminate the worst forms of child labor from the country by 2016.
"We also appreciate the work of Sri Lanka's Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) While it has shortcoming on accountability, the Commission addressed a number of crucial areas of concern to Sri Lankans, and makes substantive recommendations on reconciliation, devolution of authority, de-militarization, rule of law, media freedom, disappearances, and human rights violations and abuses that, if implemented, could contribute to genuine reconciliation and strengthening democratic institutions and practices.
"I discussed the recommendations with the President and he assured me that they were looking to implement the LLRC report in a comprehensive manner. I urged the Sri Lankan Government to share the details of their plans and begin fulfilling the recommendations called for in the report, and to credibly address outstanding issues of accountability. I confirmed the United States will support a resolution in the UN Human Rights Council in March that provides an opportunity for the Government of Sri Lanka to describe what it intends to do to implement the LLRC's recommendations and advance reconciliation, as well as address accountability, human rights and democracy concerns.
"Ultimately, the government should address the needs of all communities in Sri Lanka by creating independent mechanisms that support reconciliation, democracy, and accountability for serious human rights abuses. It is critical to ensure the rule of law foster lasting reconciliation. We strongly encourage the Government of Sri Lanka to work with international bodies, including the United Nations, to address these matters. An agreement between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) on a lasting political settlement is also critical, and we urge both sides to approach negotiations in the spirit of trust, empathy, and good faith to reach a political solution that is in the best interest of all of Sri Lanka's citizens.
"It is our sincere hope that the Government and people of Sri Lanka will seize this opportunity to build a democratic, tolerant society that will lead to lasting peace and prosperity that leads to a future of hope and dignity for all. We hope that all Sri Lankans see diversity as a strength, not a weakness. Sri Lanka has immense potential. The United States looks forward to continuing to work with you to build on your momentum toward a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Sri Lanka."
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